Academic journal article Philosophy Today

Should Levinasians Also Be Hegelians? on Wyschogrod's Levinasianism

Academic journal article Philosophy Today

Should Levinasians Also Be Hegelians? on Wyschogrod's Levinasianism

Article excerpt

There are few things more intellectually rewarding than writing on the work of Edith Wyschogrod. Her work was so wide-ranging - covering figures in the "continental" and the "analytic" traditions, Jewish and Christian philosophical theology, Asian philosophy, and various manifestations of high culture (dance, opera, etc.) - that spending a day reading or re-reading her books and essays cannot but inspire new avenues for thinking and new argumentative strategies. (It was in the undergraduate classroom that she displayed that anything could generate her intellectual energies, whether Amos Tutuola's The Palm Wine Drinkard or Roland Emmerich's 1996 film Independence Day.) Nevertheless, for me, there are few things that are more intellectually frightening. There was always, in conversations with Dr. Wyschogrod, whether in her seminar room or in her home or over email, so much more than I could absorb. This led to a curious conjunction of both hunger and fear; I wanted to be a sponge and read everything, yet suspected that I would never synthesize it adequately. Midway through the first seminar I had with her, in the fall of 1996, my fear led me to ask her for an incomplete. Her response was to ask me, in her extremely kind manner, "Why? Are you planning on being ill?" So ended the conversation.

In these ways, Dr. Wyschogrod was and remains a transcendent figure for me. I never felt mat I existed on the same temporal plane with her. Arguments she made in seminar would only make sense to me months later. Comments she made to me in phone calls would become clear to me years later. There are some emails that I am still turning over in my head. I was always lagging behind her, and now that she can no longer edify us with her presence, I am falling even further behind. As a means of trying to catch up, and as a way of acknowledging her power, in this essay I will unsay things that I believed about her in the past. One of the standard ways that religious elites have dealt with that which transcends is to undo the concepts they have developed about it. Mystical language has been described by Michael Sells as a "language of unsaying," and the work of Elliot R. Wolfson has made this locution more precise by showing that in mystical texts, the unsaying of concepts that is the hallmark of apophatic language still nonetheless says, and has its own unique library of images. A language of unsaying is still a language, for "if nothing is spoken, nothing is unspoken."1 In this essay, what I will unsay is what I at one time believed to be the case about her relationship with the work of Emmanuel Lévinas, namely, that it was one of fidelity. Desiring to be faithful to a teacher, I fear that I am also betraying her.

The impetus in Wyschogrod's work, in my view, is that a scholar should never be bound by one intellectual form, or by one philosophical hero. One should read in the interest of setting the stage for later undoings of an interpretation, and her love of open-ended narratives was grounded in the infinite future of re-readings that those narratives established. One of the many things that Wyschogrod taught in her work was that to read in this manner is to imitate the way of the saint. In this regard, the exemplary case is a brief discussion in her 1990 book Saints and Postmodernism of the transvestite saint Marina/Marinus, who died in the early sixth century CE.2 The rough outlines of her story are as follows. Marina's father Eugenius enters a monastery after his wife dies. After a period of years, his longing to be near Marina again will not end, and he brings her into the monastery; she is necessarily disguised as the boy Marinus. As he nears death, Eugenius orders Marina never to reveal to anyone that she is a woman. Soon after his death, a local villager's daughter accuses Marinus of impregnating her (Marinus was in the habit of stopping at her home while fetching wood for the monastery). Marinus refuses to deny the charge; his abbot expels Marinus; Marinus lives as a beggar outside the monastery gate for five years, the last two of which are spent taking care of the son that it was believed Marinus had fathered. …

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